During Egypt’s presidential elections, people suddenly discovered that we have over 100 political parties -- and that they are useless.
The Wafd Party’s recent internal elections reminded people of the history of this venerable party, which was so important during the pre-1952 revolutionary era and since its revival following the reintroduction of political party life in the 1970s.
It also reminded them that the 107 other parties went into extended periods of hibernation almost as soon as they were founded and, so far, there is no sign of their imminent awakening.
In fact, there has been a sudden surge in discussion of the missing role of political parties. Many believe that by merely merging together to form larger parties, they will suddenly revive and become an effective political force.
As important as political parties are and as valid as the discussion about reviving them is, we must also acknowledge that Egypt is passing through a critical juncture that other countries have experienced before us.
It resembles the period in Germany following the fall of the Nazi regime when an entire people voiced an unprecedented unanimity in their rejection of everything embodied in the Third Reich.
The German public was unwilling, at the time, to hear any opinion opposed to that unanimity.
Moreover, legislators in that country in the centre of democratic Europe passed laws criminalising the espousal and dissemination of Nazism and its ideas.
Something similar occurred in Egypt following the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood regime.
Here, too, an unanimity of public opinion rejected any attempt to defend the Muslim Brotherhood and its ideas.
Such periods in the histories of nations are not the best times for diversity in opinion or for political parties that advocate views or policies that run counter to the prevailing mood.
In addition, we are still waging a fierce battle against terrorism. As is the case in all countries at all times, wartime makes plurality of opinion seen, at best, as a luxury and, at worst, as a form of treason.
This, too, does not favour the existence of a robust political party life with diverse outlooks embodied in political parties each advocating views and policies that differ to a greater or lesser extent from those espoused by other parties.
Looking back to the era preceding the January 2011 and June 2013 Revolutions, we observe that all the parties founded under Anwar Al-Sadat and Hosni Mubarak were essentially stillborn. They could never have appeared to begin with without the approval of the ruling authorities.
Yet real opposition parties are not produced by authorities. They sprout from the ground where they develop roots and grow among the people. This is the key to why those parties were so ineffective and why the movements that were influential in society, such as Kifaya (Enough) and 6 April originated outside political party structures.
A similar situation occurred in the post-revolutionary period when party founders took advantage of new constitutional provisions facilitating the creation of political parties but without doing the legwork to develop a base.
This may be one reason why the Tamarod movement, which played an important part in paving the way to the 30 June 2013 Revolution, far outstripped the political parties in influence and efficacy.
I certainly do not mean to imply that we should give up on political parties and their role in politics. True political life can only thrive when diverse opinions are aired and mature and open minded exchanges debated between the bodies that advocate those opinions. But how can we make that happen?
Some believe that the main problem is that there are so many parties. It is not normal for a single country to have 107 parties, they argue. The solution they propose is for parties to merge together so as to reduce their overall number, thereby augmenting their overall strength.
Unfortunately, the argument is not supported by experience. When Sadat applied that logic in the 1970s by limiting the number of parties to three, the parties were no more effective than those we have today.
If all our parties reduced themselves to just two, as they have in the Anglo Saxon democracies, or to five or seven, as is the case in Italy and France, they would still fail to be more effective unless they reform themselves first.
Because the real problem is structural. How many of our current parties are founded on a distinct political orientation or platform? How many of them apply democratic methods internally? How many of them pursue effective strategies to communicate with the general public?
After all, people are the real source of strength for political parties everywhere. The Egyptian people are totally removed from the existing parties.Most people do not even know their names or how many there are. So who are these parties working with? Who are they communicating with?
If they are so cut off from the people, do they even deserve being called political parties? True, the new constitution has unleashed the freedom to create political parties.
But there is much more to creating a party than getting a group of people together, thinking up a name and completing the required paperwork.
A political party is about working among and with the people, listening to them, promoting their causes and proposing solutions to their problems in a manner consistent with a political platform that sets itself apart from other political platforms out there.
None of the foregoing can be set down in the constitution, of course. But it means that merging is not the answer.
The solution is for political parties to consult the handbook on how to build political parties from the grassroots, as political parties elsewhere in the world do. When this is put into practice here, we might then be able to call some of our 107 parties genuine political parties.
*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly